Succulents for Dummies

– Posted in: Succulents

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When Designing with Succulents came out in 2007, I proudly showed it to my son, to whom the book is dedicated. He said all the right things…nice layout, great photos…and then casually asked, “But why so many Latin names? Why not use the plants’ common names? They’re a lot easier to remember.” Well for one thing, Timber Press required Latin names because common ones are often inexact. But he had a point. Why not make the topic as easy and approachable as possible?

I was reminded of this recently when a friend asked why there’s no Succulents for Dummies book. I replied, “Well, I did write Succulents Simplified.”

He persisted. “It needs to be even more basic than that—a book for people who think succulents are cool, but don’t know anything about gardening, and are concerned they’re going to kill them.”

That got me thinking. What are the rock-bottom basics that people absolutely have to know to grow succulents successfully? I think I can sum them up in a few paragraphs:

What is a succulent? I adore nurseryman Jeff Moore’s definition: “any plant that, when stepped on, leaves a wet spot.” Unlike other plants that quickly wither if the soil goes dry, succulents are canteens. They store water to live on when there’s no moisture available. Not surprisingly, succulents come from parts of the world where it may not rain for months on end. During such dry spells, their roots may desiccate and disappear. The plant sits and waits like a well-sealed water balloon. Its leaves may shrivel and growth may cease, but when rain soaks the soil—or you come home from vacation—new roots form and leaves fatten.

So, how much water, and when? The biggest mistake people make with succulents is overwatering them. Waterlogged roots rot, the stem becomes squishy, and leaves fall off. However, succulents do require regular water to look their best. When they’re actively growing—which for most kinds is spring and summer—drench the soil once a week. When they’re dormant—usually in fall and winter—do so once a month. Fat succulents, like cactus, need less water than thinner ones like jade. When in doubt, don’t water. And don’t worry about this too much. These are not fussy plants. (There are exceptions. I don’t recommend trying to grow living stones right off the bat.)

What kind of soil? In the garden, to ensure adequate drainage, plant succulents atop mounded soil or on a slope. In containers, use commercially bagged “cactus mix.”

How about temperature? Succulents like fresh air, balmy temps, low humidity, morning sun and afternoon shade. Spiny and spiky succulents from the Americas, such as cacti and agaves, are better able to tolerate freezing temperatures (into the 20s F), all-day sun and high heat (above 90 degrees F) than smooth-leaved succulents such as aloes, aeoniums and kalanchoes (which are Old World plants from South Africa, Madagascar and the Canary Islands).

Aeonium, kalanchoes_JFR

Fertilizer? Succulents don’t really need it, but it does help them grow faster and more lush. Dilute a balanced liquid fertilizer half-and-half with water and apply it once or twice in spring.

Why so popular? Not only are succulents easy to grow, their shapes are geometric, many are living sculptures, their leaves come in every color, and they range from dainty ground covers to thick-limbed trees. The variety is astonishing, with new ones continually being introduced.
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Speaking of which, now available to the succulent-loving public is a new and noteworthy online shop. The largest grower of cacti and succulents in the US, Altman Plants, recently launched a retail, mail-order division that offers hundreds of varieties in any quantity and no minimum. “We’re very excited to have the mail-order site operating,” owner Ken Altman told me. “We have many new plants in production, about to hit the pipeline. This is a way to let people who will appreciate them access them.” Personally, I’m thrilled, because many of the plants shown in my books and videos originated in Altman greenhouses or growing grounds. The prices are excellent, too, with free shipping for orders over $20.

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Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
7 comments… add one

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Tara February 7, 2015, 12:10 pm

Great perspective! Love your thoughts on succulents – definitely an easy plant for new gardeners to try out!

ed curlee February 7, 2015, 12:49 pm

Another outstanding and informative article Debra, thanks for the tips especially about Altmans Plants..

Alexandra Campbell February 8, 2015, 8:37 am

This immediately caught my eye – succulents are so beautiful, but they always seem to go soggy on me (here in Uk gardening zone 8b, which is mild and wettish). So a very useful post. However, I thought you’d like to know that I shared it via Twitter. Usually when I share a post via twitter, the Twitter name of the blogger comes up, but in this case it’s via @shareaholic. There may be a good reason for this, or you may not realise – so I thought it might be worth mentioning it to you. For example, if you share one of my posts, it should automatically go out as being via@midsizegarden. Anyway, apologies if that’s deliberate.

Brittany February 10, 2015, 1:19 pm

Thank you so much for this Debra! I love looking at succulents on Pinterest and at the grocery store, but I’ve been afraid to bring one home for fear of killing it. I will finally give it a try! I’ve also been playing with the likethat Garden app to get more comfortable trying new flower varieties. it’s pretty simple too – You can take a photo of a flower and it will tell you its name: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/likethat-garden-flower-identification/id957861141?mt=8

Linda Fleigner February 12, 2015, 10:02 am

While I have read all three and own all of your books, I am still confused about watering in the Northeast. I water on a hot dry day in the summer and the next day we have 90% humidity. My barrel cactus was not happy and let me know it by promptly dying. He was in a porous mix but maybe the mix should be more porous 50% maybe. Stapelias still die on me. And bugs… Mealybugs are now being sprayed by Bronner’s soap. If the plant dies it dies but I have to get rid of the mealybugs. So A book on you by Dummies would be very much appreciated. You are in good company. Orchids was written by Steven A. frownine.

Hi, Linda — There’s nothing worse than a collapsed barrel cactus. I commend you for even trying to grow this plant, which is native to the deserts of Mexico. Stapeliads—mainly from Africa—are notoriously finicky. As with any plant, the more you know about its native habitat and can replicate it, the better your chances of success. I show lithops as an example of a succulent not for beginners, but I know collectors who grow them effortlessly…in a special soil mix and in greenhouses where the conditions can be strictly controlled. And that’s here in Southern CA. A book I often recommend for succulent-lovers who live in challenging climates like yours is Hardy Succulents, by Gwen Kelaidis. At least that takes care of cold issues. Surprisingly, succulents also can be challenging to grow in Florida, because of the humidity. And many simply cannot handle the heat and scorching sun of the desert Southwest. However, what all have in common is dryness. A succulent will shrug and say to you, “Well, what did you expect? I’m biologically engineered to survive without water.” Too much and they don’t know what to do with it. A barrel cactus is the ultimate water-storing succulent. Grow it in 50% pumice, 25% decomposed granite (or coarse builder’s sand or turkey grit), and 25% potting soil. Mealy bugs and other pests that thrive in moist, humid climates, love to hide in leaf axils. Instead of a surfactant—which Bronner’s is—spray with isopropyl alcohol, which is a desiccant (zaps and dries the bugs). Isolate any plant that’s infested—better yet, bag it and put it out with the trash, soil and all. Thoroughly clean the area in which it was located, as mealies will colonize the smallest crevice.

Linda fleigner February 12, 2015, 10:09 pm

Thank you. Love everything you do. Only wish you were closer so I could see one of your lectures live. But utube is a good second choice. Keep it coming!

Sarah August 10, 2017, 2:56 pm

I really am a dummy when it comes to plants and have a question. Do you eventually have to repot them in bigger pots? If so, how often? Do they just keep getting bigger indefinitely if you keep reporting them or do they get to one size and stay like that? This is something I wonder about most plants

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